I first came to the hospital back in June, having decided that the stories and experiences of the front line staff shouldn’t be forgotten. We’d all seen inside the Italian hospitals, but when the virus hit the UK, there was nothing coming out of the UK, so I made it my mission to gain access and document the life and death struggles going on behind closed doors.
This project is unique, and through it, we have a chance to see what it was like inside a COVID hospital at the peak of the pandemic and hear from the front line staff in their own words what they were going through. The Kickstarter book will also help these very same people because all of the royalties are being given to the hospital’s charity, and used only to improve the staff’s working lives. It is a chance to give back to the people who have given so much.
I’ve had some scary photo shoots before, the floor of a nuclear power station is pretty up there, as is the time I had to jump on the back of a motorcycle taxi to escape an angry crowd that had me surrounded, but this was different, and I remember walking in for the first time feeling rather scared. I was knowingly going into a coronavirus hot spot, repeatedly and over many days, back when there were no tests to diagnose the virus and no cast-iron guarantees of how to avoid catching it.
My heart was in my mouth when for the first time I went into a ‘Red Room’ — one with a confirmed Coronavirus patient. I was there to photograph the medical staff as they treated him, and I was both excited and worried as I pulled on the PPE gown, mask, visor, and gloves. It struck me as a bit stupid that I could hardly see through the viewfinder, but in a way that probably helped me concentrate on the photography rather than my worries. It would be pointless to put myself and my assistant in danger if I didn’t even get the shot.
The general atmosphere in the hospital was intimidating. People were rushing to and fro, always on the way somewhere, or gliding by pushing beds with silent occupants. And it’s not surprising that many people didn’t want to be photographed.
They’d been, and in fact were, going through so much. They’d tell me stories of incredible suffering and heartache, such as the physiotherapist seconded into ITU who “could still hear all the beeping and the alarms in my ears when I got home, sitting in a dark quiet room,” or the nurse who told me “I still have nightmares at least three times a week and I know I’m not the only one in there.”
And so it became incredibly important that I approach the people, who nearly always didn’t know to expect me, with a great deal of tact and understanding. A portrait is a photograph of a person who has volunteered to share themselves, for better or worse, with the photographer – they’ve made the decision that they’ll let a stranger in, and show them who they actually are. That’s a big ask at any time, let alone when surrounded by “the most intense pain and grief and suffering.”
And so how do you as a photographer, make a connection in such terrible circumstances? It’s easier to say what not to do. That’s because each person is a world unto themselves. The bridge that the photographer has to build between them and their subject has to relate to them, and not the photographer, and so you can’t come at it with a list or a recipe — otherwise, you’re only taking a portrait of yourself.
So this is how it goes: I’m standing there in a corridor or a ward, lights and set up ready, and I’m feeling anxious about interrupting people as they scoot past. There’s a tug of war happening inside me, one part saying run away so I don’t leave myself open to their rejection, and the other half, the half that eventually wins, picks up when someone slightly slows down or slightly orientates themselves in my direction. But why did they do that? Why are they open?
That’s the question I now resolve to answer. It’s time – time for me to step out and try to find a bridge of some description. It’s always the most nerve-wracking moment, and it’s not something that I enjoy. I also never know what I’m going to say or do, which is doubly worrying! I’m often as much of a spectator as anyone else as to what’s going to come out of my mouth, but I’ve taken a decision that this is the way that it should be done, this is the way that it has to be, and so I follow my own lead – I genuinely want to know why they’re different from all the rest.
The present is a dangerous place which is why so many people avoid it at all costs. But to take a portrait, you have to be present with the other person, and place yourself in the precarious position of not knowing what will happen next. These kinds of portraits require that.
And it’s partly that unknowing, that makes me love this phase of the shoot so much. It’s like racing down a steep slope on a rickey go-cart, knowing that you may well wipe out, but you also might fly triumphantly onwards, reaching your unknown destination in glorious technicolor. And in the hospital, that feeling of being on the way to an unknown destination was heightened because I needed to have something much more meaningful than a regular conversation.
I had to ask them about situations and events that were incredibly painful – literally about the life and death of them, their patients and their families, and all that goes into that – and ask them to go back there and tell me about it. It kinda spooks me, thinking about it now, because of the enormity of what I was asking them to do. But I remember feeling that we were both high up, on a level far above that of a regular mundane moment. It was both enlivening and chastening to be elevated so precipitously without a net beneath, only the two of us. It all felt so fast, and so precarious.
And the difficult thing about photography is that you’re doing two mutually exclusive things at the same time. On the one hand, you are present and together with the other person; and on the other, you’re attending to the technical side of things which are constantly trying to strip you clean of the moment: is the exposure right, the location appropriate, does the composition or lighting need changing, how would they react to me doing that … is the lens cap on?
When you get it wrong, the sense of loss is huge. I’m sure every photographer knows the feeling when one of the spinning plates comes down. Sometimes you’ll only realize it hours or even days later. And here in the hospital, I was continually worried that I was in the wrong place, or taking the wrong approach, or going after the wrong thing. The weight of all the people’s experiences sometimes felt so heavy – what if I just wasn’t up to the job of translating these people’s experiences? What if they were telling, for the first time, the most extreme events of their lives to a stranger, and all for nothing?
The project is now a book, and I like to think that people are alive inside it. As you leaf through, it feels to me that you’re almost walking along the corridors or wards with them, or taking the buses home, or greeting their families on their return. I think also that inside it we can learn how to look after our own selves because so many of the people here are figuring out how to care for themselves too.
What has happened at the hospital, let’s not kid ourselves, is trauma en masse. Many of these people, on these pages, have undergone trauma on a scale unknown outside of war. And indeed, there have been more deaths of British hospital staff in 6 months than the British armed forces suffered during 12 years of war in Afghanistan, and 6 years of war in Iraq, combined. Combined.
It’s not normal, what they’ve been through, and I think, I hope, that this book tells their stories. These are their words, and these are their images.
About the author: Slater King is a photographer in London, UK. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Details of the book are on his site. All royalties from the book are being given to the hospital’s charity – ring-fenced so that they can be used to make these people’s working lives easier and more enjoyable. Think a coffee machine in a staff room, or funding to buy paints for a mural to brighten a place up. The book launched Tuesday, November 24th.. Slater won with three of these images at the prestigious British Journal of Photography’s Portrait of Britain Awards 2020 in September 2020.